The Opéra Garnier is a place of art, beauty, and intrigue. It is so beautiful that despite being just an opera house, the building received the title of a palace. Apart from its exquisite beauty as the most beautiful building in Paris, there is the famous Phantom of the Opera connection, which still draws adoring fans to the opera house. So are you ready to be wowed? Let’s start exploring the Opéra Garnier, the most beautiful building in Paris.
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Every inch of the building is a work of art and the facade is a masterpiece in its own right. Make sure to walk around the entire structure and see it from every possible angle. On top of the main facade are the golden statues of Harmony and Poetry. Looking over them is Apollo holding up a lyre. Below them are bronze busts of great composers like Mozart, Beethoven, and others.
Opéra Garnier Interiors
The interior can be designated into four segments: the entrance, the auditorium, the stage, and the administrative offices. There is an increasing feeling of a crescendo as one proceeds through the building since each room is cleverly designed to be more magnificent than the last. The acoustics of Opéra Garnier is outstanding, and the stage is one of Europe’s largest. Measuring 52 meters wide by 62 meters high, it is vast enough to fit the Arc de Triomphe. The highlights of Opéra Garnier are the Grand Staircase, the Grand Foyer, and the Chagall Ceiling. Most visitors begin on the ground level and are greeted by costumes. The Opéra Garnier management does not hire costumes. Their in-house designers make all their own costumes, an impressive feat itself.
Look for the architect’s signature at Rotonde des Abonnées
One enters the opera on the left side and is greeted by a bust of Garnier. The guided tour starts here, at Rotonde des Abonnées, a circular vestibule with a decorative ceiling. It was used to accommodate spectators arriving by coach. This space was deliberately dimly lit so that the spectators could be bedazzled by the magnificence of the Grand Staircase. On the vestibule’s ceiling, one can see Charles Garnier’s signature, and the Opéra Garnier is indeed the world’s first signed building.
Grand Escalier or the Grand Staircase
Going to the opera for the upper crust meant being seen and to see. Women dressed to bedazzle and they needed lavish surroundings that would befit their attire. Imagine being dressing up with the intention to turn heads. You would want your surroundings to complement and heighten your looks. Garnier knew that the Palais Garnier would not just be about music but also a display of class, a perfect place to showcase its public. According to him, “The opera is the staircase” and he created the breathtaking vision of beautiful women emerging from the dark Rotonde des Abonnées to the golden haze of the Grand Staircase. An engineering marvel, the staircase is housed in a huge nave made of pink, green, and white marble. It has balusters of antique red and green marble. The nave is so massive that it can easily fit a 2,000 seat auditorium inside and this vast space was designed to see and be seen. The staircase is flanked by 36 large columns and is divided into two staircases that direct opera-goers to their respective sections. The ceiling has a fresco by Isidore Pils, painted in 1869-74. It depicts the Triumph of Apollo and at the top of the staircases are large torchieres. Since the Grand Staircase was like the Catwalk of those days, it is surrounded by balconies over four floors. The steps were made shallow so that when women went upstairs, their ankles barely showed.
Inside the Auditorium
Red is the colour of glamour and it can be found in abundance in the auditorium. Very ornate, decorated in red velvet, marble, and gold leaf, its stage is a classic horseshoe shape. The auditorium seats almost 2,000 and it is all plush velvet and gold trimmings. Only the Opera House curtain is an optical illusion. Keeping the matter-of-fact French practicality in mind, the Opéra Garnier management commissioned an artist to paint a detailed trompe l’œil (trick of the eye) image onto a simple canvas sheet. Regularly restored, the painting still makes the curtain look like draped velvet. Once inside the Auditorium, it is hard to miss the Emperor’s box, not placed in the middle of the hall for a perfect view and acoustic but rather to the left, beside the front of the stage, visible from almost every seat in the house. Ironically, Opéra Garnier seemed to have aimed at social butterflies more than serious art lovers because the most expensive seats in the opera are the boudoir-like boxes, even though they have a slightly obstructed view of the stage. The opera’s cheapest options are to be found high up in the auditorium, up towards the ceiling. This was where the 19th-century middle-class spectators sat. Since they could not afford to eat at the upmarket restaurant downstairs, they often brought their own food. Legend has it that, the poorer audience members, being bitter about their inferior position, would often hurl food down at the disliked upper-class audience. To prevent such annoyances to get out of hand, the opera management installed a thin wire fence beneath the upper tiers, so as to catch any edible projectiles. For years, seats up at the top became known as ‘the chicken coop’.
Chagall Ceiling: A Surrealistic Gift to Paris
One of the highlights of the Auditorium of Opéra Garnier is the Chagall ceiling. It is typically French to have a dramatic Surrealistic addition in the midst of lush Baroque and Rennaissance styles. The fresco was commissioned in 1964 and was placed over the existing academic painting by Jules-Eugene Lenepveu, The Muses and the Hours of the Day and Night. According to popular belief, General de Gaulle and Andre Malraux, minister of culture, were attending a show in which the set and costumes were designed by Chagall. The minister was said to have glanced at the ceiling, frowned in tedium, and on the spot, asked Chagall to design a new ceiling. Marc Chagall at that time was a modern artist who dabbled with Surrealism, Fauvism, and Cubism. Thus it is no wonder that the proposed ceiling became controversial. Many opposed any new changes while others claimed that it was garish and clashed with the opera’s Second Empire decor. To maintain the peace and as a concession to critics, Chagall proposed that Lenepveu’s work be preserved and Chagall’s fresco be placed on a removable canvas that is stretched over the ceiling. Chagall took one year to complete the assignment. It consists of 12 canvas panels and one round central panel covering 240 square meters. The artist was 77 years old at that time and he presented the fresco to the opera house. The mural showcases his trademark features — luminous prismatic colors, dreamy details, and poetic lyricism. Featuring 14 composers from different musical periods, musical instruments, and Paris’ signature buildings, this fresco is an act of love.
The mosaics of Avant Foyer
I love mosaics and this was one of my favourite sections of the Opéra Garnier. The long gallery that overlooks the Grand Staircase has a stunning ceiling decorated with mosaics. Rectangular panels of Salviati mosaics modeled after French painter Paul-Alfred de Curzon’s designs can be found on the ornate ceiling. The four pairs of Greek mythological gods and goddesses symbolizing love and death include Artemis and Endymion, Orpheus and Eurydice, Aurora and Cephalus, and Psyche and Hermes.
The Grand Foyer, a Mini Versailles Hall of Mirrors
This is the highlight of Opéra Garnier. A huge 18 meters high, 154 meters long, and 13 meters wide hall, was intended as a place for the creme de la creme of the society to take a break, mingle, and close a few deals, personal or otherwise. For that reason, it was purposely built just outside the highest-paying boxes. Decidedly reminiscent of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, the Grand Foyer is astonishing. Charles Garnier teamed up with Paul Baudry to create this exquisite hall. Baudry who specialized in painting the Sistine Chapel replicas used a lot of gold. The result is a lot of glitter and maximalism of opulence. The hall boasts of an impressive ceiling fresco showing the history of music. This was done by Paul Baudry himself. The foyer’s key decorative motif is the lyre and in 2004, the Grand Foyer was renovated to perfection.
The two Salons and a funny mismatch
At each end of the Grand Foyer lie two salons. These two rooms are themed on night and day. Salon du Soleil (Sun Salon) has a golden sunburst and mirrored walls. The Salon de la Lune (Moon Salon) boasts a night sky adorned with silver moon rays and stars. Both the salons have stunning infinity mirrors and I love this kind of optical illusion. The sunroom representing fire was supposed to be the smoking room and the moon room, representing ice, was a space for a cool sorbet. Ironically, the decorator, much to Garnier’s dismay, reversed the schemes so that the opera-goers were forced to go through the “ice room” to smoke a cigar and the “sunroom” to nibble a sorbet.
Other Highlights of Opéra Garnier
- The Salon du Glacier – A bright rotunda, the “Salon du Glacier” has a ceiling painted by painter and illustrator Georges Clairin. It features scenes of bacchantes and fauns. On the walls hang tapestries illustrating scenes of fishing and hunting, along with various types of refreshments such as wine, coffee, tea, or champagne. The room was decorated after the opening of the opera house, thus giving it a very distinct 1900s flavor, typical of the “Belle Époque”.
- The Balcony – Located just outside the Grand Hall, the balcony provides ‘fresh’ Paris air and fine views of the city. It was yet another place to be seen. Imagine, how the opera-goers felt sipping champagne up there, as the whole town gaped at them from down below.
- Opéra Garnier honey – It is widely known that the Opéra Garnier harvests honey from bees grown on the roof of the Palais Garnier. Over 300 kg of honey are produced every year and one can buy some in the gift shop at the exit.
Opéra Garnier Practical Information
Address: 8 Rue de Scribe, Place de l’Opera 75009 Paris
Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm, Guide tours in English are at 11:00 am and 2:30 pm
Access and other facilities: The access from street Havély or from the theatre public areas. The Palais is accessible to persons with reduced mobility, in wheelchairs, or with visual disabilities.
Ticket Prices: Full rate: €14 (€12 outside exhibition periods), Reduced rate: €10 (€8 outside exhibition periods), Free admission (children under 12, unemployed). The Opéra Garnier charges €14 for a self-guided tour. This monument is not included in the Paris Museum Pass.
Metro: Line 3, 7, or 8 to Opera
Extra: The nearest car park is Place Vendome. Access to the auditorium may be closed for technical reasons or performance rehearsals.
Virtual Tour: You can explore the Opera Garnier virtually on Google Arts & Culture.
Private Tour: Book a private tour of the Palais Garnier for the full Opera House experience. You can book yours here through the Paris Opera House official website.
Follow the rest of the France series
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- CLIMBING THE GIGANTIC DUNE DE PILAT
- THE CLICHE AND INTREPID IN PARIS
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- PALAIS GARNIER: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE